Luke Lafitte and Stephanie Cleghorn in \"Flesh World\"

Changing the Narrative

Can Flesh World be approached in terms of conventional theater? Playwright Thomas Riccio writes that his group, Dead White Zombies, wants to change such notions. With video. Plus ticket giveaway.

published Friday, June 1, 2012

We are all Dead White Zombies. We are all wandering around this world in a time of tectonic planetary upheaval. Around us culture lay in the death throes of originality, all that is left is the remix, a mashing, rehashing, or trashing of what once was. We are like ghost, dead, still walking around, playing out the spent scenario of white (aka western) culture. The theatre, like the larger culture, is caught in a feedback loop, a cycle of Baudrilardian simulation and simulacrum, echoing, repeating, and reformulating what once was. Like a doddering old person picking through the shards of a half remembered life. We are at the end of one cultural cycle, exhausted, economically (the death of capitalism), politically (the end of nation states) and environmentally (the end of resource exploitation). Change is an ordeal and a necessity. Adapt or die. It is no longer about the surface changes; it is now about a fundamental questioning of the underlying concepts and principles that guide our system and perceptions—the narratives. Everything is being challenged and questioned, what worked in the past—be it newspapers, conventional warfare, our interaction with technology, the concept of marriage—all of it is questioned, changing. 

Dead White Zombies is a group of malcontent artists interested in exploring the alternative possibilities, the potential of performance. Theatre is only one of many forms of performance expression, and language is only one vernacular among many that DWZ applies. DWZ questions and plays with the forms and conventions of theatre along with visual, performance and media art, installation, ritual, consumer behaviors, and therapy, among others. Its efforts are hybrid, post-disciplinary and exploratory much like the world is now. The expression seeks the form it needs, whatever and from wherever. The form of presentation is shaped to the necessity of content. 

DWZ's latest work, Flesh World, is an immersion installation. It is not theatre, although it uses the vernacular of theatre. The Flesh World project immerses a limited audience in a narrative. The narrative that shapes and guides the event is the 36,000 square foot former welding shop in West Dallas where it is presented. Flesh World was shaped to the space—the space shaped Flesh World. The narrative of K-Low who leads us through the space, is only one component of many; it is the space she travels through that is the narrative. Rather than giving primacy to the language-based narrative and the forms of theatrical convention, the performance gives primacy to the site and the audience's experience as they move through the space. Character, language and those aspects of traditional narrative serve as elements of a composited totality, it is not what focuses and drives the event. The space shapes and contains several simultaneous and parallel narratives. 

Why is this? Firstly it is an experiment, an exploration, DWZ is dedicated to experimentation not in the creation of product that suits expectations and satisfies and comforts those seeking reaffirmations and reiterations of narrative conventions. The idea of an immersion, whereby the audience moves through a site is inspired by the assertion that we are active participants and interpreters of a constantly unfolding reality that we walk through daily. We are moving participants in a forest of stimuli, a multiplicity of impressions, symbols, language, environments, relationships, sounds, and atmospheres. We composite and make sense of reality as an ongoing process. In life we pick up fragments and put together our day more like a mosaic. 

The convention implicit in theatre is that humans primarily experience and organize the world through language-conveyed narratives—a notion straight out of the 17th century when Descartes posited that the mind (articulated by language) organizes and tells the body what is important and meaningful. A philosophical construct created by a religious fanatic that has contorted, and shaped western thought and in so doing constricted, the ability to live fully in and of the world. Think back a the most significant events of your life, your first kiss, first love, a moment of triumph or disappointment, they have nothing to do with language or the mind, they were experienced, you recall the atmosphere, the objects, music, sounds, touch, location, the emotions that aggregated around it—life is experiential, narratives are something we put on stimuli to order the world. Psychology is one of the many narratives we subscribe to, making sense of our world, and before psychology (the default narrative overlay of theatre) there was myth. We live in an overlay of overlapping narratives, personal, religious, political, social, you name it, and they are everywhere. 

Conventional narrative markers are not adhered to in Flesh World, they are deliberately not there. The age of such narratives convention is over. Such narratives grooves, although convenient and reassuring, are spent, suspect, often manipulated and processed. Why? Look around your world. Narratives are increasingly agents of manipulation. Just look at the narratives that spew from Fox news or the 2008 Obama "hope and change" political narrative or the Romney narrative of being a "regular guy, all-American" or the narratives of drug, medical, insurance, or financial companies who proclaim they care so much for you. What about the narrative of America being a fair, incorruptible, egalitarian or exceptional nation? Narrative manipulations, once the prime currency of totalitarian regimes, are suspect in this cynical age of greed, consumerism, revaluation, and narcissism. Narratives unquestioned are a tyranny doing violence to the world. So we must become adept at reading and (re) contextualizing narratives. That is what Flesh World is about, among other things. 

Flesh World is experiential, yes there are words, and yes there are intimations of theatre conventions and narrative, but it is not theatre. It offers no single venue or expression of narrative. The world is full of things that contain elements of theatre—things like a judicial hearing, fashion show, or presidential news conference—that does not mean it is theatre nor should it be judged as such. Flesh World does not follow the rules or conventions of theatre rather it uses and plays with them. And if you approach the work with the expectations of theatre, convention and reaffirmations, you will disappointed. Flesh World asks simply to be experienced on its own terms. 

The site takes precedence in Flesh World, the audience, witness, experiencer of the event are asked to perceive the reality in its totality, as a composite of varied elements shaped and conveyed by the site. Is that not the reality we are all facing and coming to terms with in this era of foreshadowing environmental collapse? The site of our earth is increasingly shaping our personal, social and cultural narratives. The human-centric narratives that have dominated politics, economics, and culture are simply out of synch if not counter to what the rest of our society is coming to terms with—namely that we are only a part of a totality, an ecosystem. As a species we are rediscovering that our survival depends on realigning and revaluing how we see the world, meaning how we narrativize the world, which starts with how and why we present and evaluate our human narrative. We are indigenous—we are all earthlings living in one large ecosystem—and that everything is shaped by this ephemeral and forever moving and adjusting narrative called the world in which we live. DWZ is exploring and experimenting with a performance expression responsive and responsible to our world, not to the world we once inhabited and simply retracing narrative pathways in a way that simply reaffirms a spent way of looking at the world. 

One experiential device applied in Flesh World was the used sound. Eight of the installation's nine "rooms" had a unique sound, which was looped and played continuous throughout the performance. As the audience moves through the space they come to associate a scene with a sound/emotion/memory. The sounds layer and accumulate. Each sound bleeds and overlaps so when the audience is in one room they are hearing the emotional resonance from previous and future scenes. Sound designer Frank Dufour and I call this "narrative sonification" whereby the narrative is told through associated sound, which contain emotions and memories, co-existing simultaneously within the audience to create a deeply textured aural narrative. Another device explored was the use of "free radical characters" that move through the performance and react, witness, and on occasion participate in the action. These three characters are free to adjust their movements and interactions with the events and they are deliberately ambiguous. I have an understanding of who and what they are, but it is not imposed on the audience. Their connection to the meaning of the piece is left for the audience—interpretations vary wildly. The narrative is of the beholder's making; most enjoy the challenge of finding personal meaning; those bound by convention and expectations are dismissive with an attitude of "if I don't understand it must be wrong." 

The 500, the site of our performance is a former welding shop and a stand in for our larger environment. The language of Flesh World is deliberately non-linear, impressionistic and fragmentary, circumventing surface logic to work into the subconscious. The work will not tell you, it requires you to listen and be present; there is no right or wrong, this or that, it is what you construct. Think about your average day, it is full of fragments, emotions, sights, sounds, contradiction and then moment of clarity, all of which you process and make into meaning. You talk to a relative on the phone, then you read or see something about the war in Afghanistan online, someone does a Facebook post about something like their cat dying and you respond, you hear a song, you water a house plant, the doorbell rings, you think about a dead relative, have a memory from grade school, your partner comes into the room and asks about dinner, there is no logical and linear narrative, you are compositing and recalibrating all the time, the best way through it is simply experience and respond and not to impose a narrative but rather react and let it evolve. This is simply what Flesh World asks. It is an experience, a meditation, a journey to awaken feelings and ideas, how you composite is up to you. Flesh World does not provide a master narrative (you are the master of your own narrative), and is bereft of language-based meaning and psychological cause-effect, which means it does not subscribe to expectations. Flesh World is thematically about reincarnation, about a woman, a spirit, working through her past life as she moves to another. In many ways it is the journey of the audience to a sort of reincarnation, moving from their former way of being in the world to another way of being in the world. You are either open to this or not. 

DWZ thinks immersion and installation performance is important, more honest and responsible, and the best way to enable its community to better gain insights into our unique cultural moment. Not by telling it but rather letting you experience it. DWZ sees the imposition of narrative and convention is an act of self-censoring, perpetuating a falsehood, disenabling, and counter productive to the perspective shift required understanding and participating in the creation of another, more engaged way of being in and of the world. 

Most theatre inclined audiences and reviewers come to Flesh World expecting something that is not there, looking for narrative, convention, a form that they recognize, hook by which to judge the work. For me that perspective is dead, lazy, afraid and nostalgic. It is fast thinking when the work, like a meditation, asks for slow and deeper thinking and feeling. Japanese Noh theatre asks its audiences to consider it as a meditation that washes over you with the audience being under no obligation except to simply be present and consider what you need to consider. 

The only truthful narrative remaining is that which we constantly create, one that we can feel, hear, see, and which we can sensorial participate—it is the only authenticity remaining for us. DWZ and Flesh World are only a small part of a cultural boiling down process searching for authenticity from which something, the next reality, will be created.

◊ Thomas Riccio is a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, a playwright, director, world traveler and theater-maker. In the spring of 2010, he wrote a series of essays for TheaterJones about his experience with making theater in Ethiopia in 2009. The first of those, which links to the others, is here. He also contributes a series of audio interviews to our site.

Flesh World is performed at 8 p.m. Thursdays; and 8 and 9:30 p.m Fridays and Saturdays, at the 500 warehouse space in West Dallas, just west of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge (see info box under the photos above).

◊ Below is a series of videos taken at a performance of Flesh World. Below the videos you'll find info on a ticket giveaway to Flesh World.



◊ To be entered for a chance to win tickets to Flesh World, email with FLESH WORLD in the subject line, your name and number in the body. They'd be good for a remaining performance, subject to availability. Thanks For Reading

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Changing the Narrative
Can Flesh World be approached in terms of conventional theater? Playwright Thomas Riccio writes that his group, Dead White Zombies, wants to change such notions. With video. Plus ticket giveaway.
by Thomas Riccio

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